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Tiny NE Fresno water dilemma overshadowing bigger infrastructure needs

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The day will come when Tommy Esqueda gets to talk about water the way he wants to.

But that day’s not here yet, as Monday’s events proved all too clearly.

Esqueda, of course, is director of Fresno’s Department of Public Utilities. And DPU has been busy of late with the discolored water problem in the northeast part of town.

Esqueda and Communications Director Mark Standriff on Monday released two pages of statistics on City Hall’s efforts so far to get a handle on things.

Permit me to poach at length from the excellent news release:

Through July 26:

  • 279 homes had been sampled at least one time; 838 fixtures had been sampled in these homes.
  • 158 homes reported no detection of lead in any faucet.
  • 70 homes reported lead concentrations below the Action Level.
  • 41 homes had current water quality test reports showing lead above the Action Level at an indoor fixture.
  • Of the 838 fixtures tested, 592 of 838 fixtures showed no detection of lead, while another 169 fixtures showed some lead detection but below the Action Level.
  • Only 77 of the 838 fixtures show results above the Action Level.
  • Of the 77 fixtures showing results above the Action Level, 43 were bathtubs; 19 were bathroom sinks; six were utility sinks; six were kitchen faucets; two were bar sinks; and one was a shower.
  • More recent testing has shown that two of the six kitchen faucets are now below the Action Level. That means only four kitchen faucets are testing above the Action Level
  • At one point, a total of 51 homes had water quality test reports showing lead above the Action Level at an indoor fixture. After recalibrating the chemical formula at the northeast surface water treatment plant, 10 of those homes were removed from the list after re-testing.

These statistics support what Esqueda told the City Council last week: The discolored water problem is actually a lead problem.

So, what’s the future look like?

City Hall in early July sent nearly 45,400 postcards to residents in seven North Fresno zip codes in an effort to define the extent of the homes plagued with discolored water. The postcard in essence said: Got discolored water? Contact City Hall (via phone, email or by completing an online survey).

To give you one example of results from the mailing, there were 791 responses via the online survey saying their homes had discolored water. More than half were from the 93720 zip code. That’s the area by River Park Shopping Center and Woodward Park.

There’s much more to the Esqueda/Standriff news release. Here are three of my takeaways:

“Action Level” for lead means at least 15 parts per billion. Any test at 15 or higher means the feds insist City Hall take corrective action. I suspect those 45,400 postcards in the coming weeks will sniff out more fixtures testing above the Action Level. I’m not predicting big numbers. I’m just saying that’s a lot of postcards.

I understand that a kitchen faucet testing above the Action Level is more serious than the same test result from the faucet in the service porch tub. The thinking: Your kid gets a glass of drinking water from the kitchen faucet but not from the tub next to the washing machine. I understand the theory. But if the afflicted homes in Northeast Fresno are like my house, then on occasion there’s a 2-year-old grandson in that service-porch tub taking a long and enjoyable bath. Little boys in such a situation drink their share of warm water coming out of the faucet.

I hear a lot about the federal Environmental Protection Agency keeping an eye on City Hall’s commendable progress in resolving the problem. I understand the EPA has all sorts of rules as to what’s really important and what’s less important. But so far the EPA and its rules seem to be background noise. This discolored water issue is getting real close to a point where Fresnans need to hear directly from the EPA. Send us an expert ready to answer any and all questions.

I headed to City Hall on Tuesday to talk with Esqueda about these numbers. But he was up to his eyeballs in meetings, so we postponed our chat for a day or two.

To tell you the truth, I was going to throw a curveball at Esqueda. This Northeast Fresno water problem is a legitimate public policy issue. But what I really want to discuss with Esqueda is the status of the upgrade to the water system running throughout Fresno.

I’m talking about the $429 million being spent on construction of the Southeast Fresno surface water treatment plant and the necessary delivery system. And I’m talking about the “purple pipe” recycled water system that’s beginning to snake its way from the sewer farm west of town into Fresno proper.

These two projects will change Fresno forever, and do so in a positive way. Esqueda was hired two years ago to bring these two projects to the finish line.

Again, don’t get me wrong – the discolored water problem needs to be tackled with speed and focus. And I very much admire Esqueda’s patience and sincerity when dealing with water customers and their complaints. There was a City Council meeting last month at which Northeast Fresno residents voiced their concerns. I saw Esqueda listening to three residents as they stood in front of the council chamber. I went inside the chamber for an hour. When I emerged, Esqueda was still listening to the same three residents.

But the two big capital projects – there is where Fresno’s attention should be riveted.

That’s why I decided to attend Monday evening’s meeting of the Capital Projects Oversight Board. This advisory group of community leaders reviews proposed contract changes for multi-million-dollar projects.

The two big water projects dominated Monday’s agenda. I was looking forward to a 90-minute update as well as explanations for several change orders. DPU staff was in the audience. Esqueda at the last minute hustled in. Discolored water or not, he appeared to be in a great mood.

Then the meeting was cancelled without a single word of review from DPU. The reason: Only four board members showed up. Five is the quorum.

Tommy Esqueda loves to talk about the most important natural resource to Fresno’s future. The least those absent Oversight Board members can do is display the same dedication to the public.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

2 Comments

  1. Per the EPA’s website: “The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks, are called maximum contaminant level goals. The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at ZERO because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.”

    The EPA Action Level is an enforcement level, but everyone, including City Officials, need to understand that ZERO Lead in drinking water is the only acceptable level!

  2. If bad chemical treatment at the first surface water plant is causing homeowners’ pipes to erode and release lead into the water, then the problem needs to be understood and solved before bringing the other plants online. Otherwise the NE Fresno lead issue could be duplicated, creating a city wide lead issue.

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